Multiple meanings and community critique: The complex place of muralism in Casa Zapata

April 30, 2015, 9:14 p.m.

Casa Zapata, which has been an ethnic theme dorm and part of the Stanford community since 1972, has a rich and beautiful tradition of muralism. Recently, one of the murals in Zapata, “The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes,” came under criticism in an article by The Stanford Review. This criticism comes at a particularly painful time for communities of color, as it follows a series of articles that undermine the most prominent pillars of community life for students of color: community centers, VSOs, CSRE programs and now ethnic theme dorms. For this reason, we hope that this article will promote healing during these difficult times as well as open the door for further engagement with our community.

José Antonio Burciaga’s 1994 painting “The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes,” part of the triptych “The History of Maíz,” is a nationally iconic Chican@ mural, and one of which many residents are proud. Chicanismo and its icons mean different things to different people at different times. Indeed, this mural does not and cannot represent the entirety of the Chican@/Latin@ community; that is not its function. However, it is an important part of the cultural history of this dorm and contains many themes of Burciaga’s Chican@ aesthetic and sensibility.

The murals in Zapata were painted over the course of several decades by professional and student artists, some as part of the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues, as expressions of social consciousness in response to world events. They contain diverse viewpoints and portrayals of social movements, such as the replacement of the traditional strongman with Mahatma Gandhi as El Valiente in the “Lotería Chicana” mural by Ray Patlan.

Symbols can be iconic, problematic, contradictory in their interpretations and culturally and historically significant — all at once. To reduce them to a single narrative is to ignore the complexity of the human condition. For example, our community both recognized the valuable role of Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” and decided to stage Cherríe Moraga’s “Watsonville: Some Place Not Here” this year. We did so in the awareness that both those plays and playwrights reflect different facets of Chican@/Latin@ experience.

In this sense, it is internal community critique and discussion that shapes the tone of the Zapata community and how we choose to represent and express ourselves. Sometimes student participation leads to certain changes, as with the amendment of rifles to lilies in “Estatues of Liberty” in the 1980s. And sometimes disagreement is a productive reflection of the multiplicity of voices, as with the inter-generational — and even intra-generational — response to Zarco Guerrero’s “Caricatures,” which retains the depiction of certain stereotypical figures and leaves it up to the viewer to make a value judgement on their meaning.

As the Stanford community grapples with the legacies of Burbank, Jordan, Terman, Hoover and Leland Stanford, Sr. himself — not to mention the two dorms named after Junipero Serra — it is a clear double standard not to accord Zapata the respect of being able to thoughtfully consider issues of our own history. It is also particularly wicked to target murals which have in the past acquitted themselves well under robust criticism, as with Burciaga’s “The Spirit of Hoover,” but which have also been physically defaced — the vandalism to Guerrero’s “Racist Violence in the Media” is still evident to anyone who walks into Stern Dining.

Amidst this criticism, it is especially distressing to see Zapata referred to as “utterly disgusting, offensive, and ignorant.” On the contrary, Zapata is dedicated to providing opportunities to affirm and engage with Chican@ and Latin@ experiences. Weekly presentations, an annual theater production and the murals are all part of the educational mission of Zapata. These opportunities are available to the entire Stanford community and beyond. All are encouraged to use these opportunities as an opportunity to engage with the community to express solidarity, as well as critiques. In fact, as evidenced by a tradition of internal critique and evolution, Zapata is very open to and has responded to criticism in the past. However, the hostility of recent critiques from those who have not chosen to engage with the Zapata community are unproductive and deeply hurtful, as well as neglectful of the unique space that Zapata occupies in our community and on our campus.

Casa Zapata is more than a dorm; it has been called home by many throughout its history. Within these mural-covered walls, we love, heal and grow together. We invite all to do the same, and to learn about our community, our culture and our legacy of resilience.

Casa Zapata ETAs ’14-’15 & ’15-’16


Julian Peña ’17, ETA 15′ – 16′

Leow Hui Min Annabeth ’16 MA ’16, ETA ’15-’16

James Ortiz ’18, ETA ’15-’16

Peter Madsen ’16, ETA ’14-’15

Erica McDowell ’16, ETA ’14-’15

Catherine Mitchell ’16, ETA ’14-’15

Contact the authors of this article through James Ortiz at jameso2 ‘at’

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